What makes an IT acquisition work?


As everyone involved in government contracting knows, an IT acquisition can work well or go horribly wrong. Determining what makes one effective and another a flop isn't always simple.

GAO released a report Nov. 21 that found nine characteristics in successful IT acquisitions -- success defined as achieving their cost, schedule, scope, and performance goals.

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In discussions with agencies, federal officials told GAO that their successful acquisition investments had active engagement of stakeholders, program staff with the necessary knowledge and skills, and senior agency executive support for the program, GAO wrote.

GAO studied seven investments, including the Treasury Department's Customer Account Data Engine 2 and the Defense Department's Global Combat Support System-Joint.

Of the seven, officials for each one cited active engagement as essential to an acquisition. Individuals and groups working on various aspects of an investment reviewed contractor proposals during the procurement process, regularly attended program management office sponsored meetings, and were working members of integrated project teams.

Similar to engagement within an agency, there's engagement outside of it too. GAO said both government officials and the contractors need to trust each other. Talking and dealing with stakeholders built that trust and also transparency, which ultimately increased support for the acquisition.

Officials from six of the seven IT investments said that the program staff's knowledge and skills were critical to success, GAO wrote. Employees need to know the acquisition process and how to monitor their contracts. They need to understand large-scale organizational transformations and agile software development concepts as it relates to the IT project. Employees also need to know earned value management and technical monitoring.

In addition:

  • Senior agency executives supported the programs.
  • Stakeholders and the people who would use the technology when it was finished were involved in developing the requirements.
  • Users participated in testing the functionality of a system prior to formally testing whether or not users would use it.
  • Government and contractor staff were stable and consistent.
  • Program staff prioritized requirements.
  • Program officials maintained regular communication with the prime contractor.
  • Programs received sufficient funding.

In addition, GAO said the Office of Management and Budget has helped in making more acquisition succeed. GAO mentioned specifically the IT Dashboard, a public website that brings attention to unhealthy investments, and the regular TechStat meetings, where OMB officials meet with agencies to talk about issues and programs.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.


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